Abbeys and Monastries on the Conero
In the footsteps of the ancient benedictine comunities
The XI century climate of reform against the deterioration and corruption of tradition also presented itself in the Marches with the trend for a hermit like existance. The wild Nature and difficult terrain of the Conero was ideal for monastic settlements.
Three main buildings were built and inhabited by the monks:
1- The splendid Church of St. Maria at Portonovo was built between 1034 and 1048 and is an authentic Roman jewel of the Marches Region. It was probably founded by the French-Norman benedictines and later turned into a convent of which there is no trace today. It was abandoned in 1320 after devastating landslides. Today, after recent restoration works, it is back to its original splendour. On the mountain summit we find:
2 - la chiesa e monastero di S.Pietro al Conero
3 - The San Bendetto retreat
The history of the Church of Saint Pietro al Conero and the San Benedetto retreat
During the middle ages the Conero mountain was chosen by many saintly men searching for a solitary existance , who lived on berries and roots and slept in natural caves or caves dug into the rocks. These caves are known as "romiti" or retreats.
These men were not part of any religious order and they loved living in close contact with Nature, in silence and meditation, far from human passion and temptation. It was in later years that the benedictine monks moved to the mountain and founded what were to become true religious communities.
Historical sources claim that this retreat already existed before the 11th Century, when the St. Pietro Abbey was built. At the beginning of the year 1000 there were two wealthy abbeys on the mountain. The first, united to the St. Pietro church, was situated at the top of the mountain at 470 metres, the second, half way down the mountain at 300metres, was dedicated to San Benedetto and today has totally disappeared. There are just a few remaining walls and stones which maybe once held up the church and the adjacent house. The building was situated near to a cave ( with an altar and stone seats) called the Grotta di St. Benedetto or the Grotta dell'Abate
From an deed dated the 8th of April 1037 we learn that the Count Cortesi Family, who lived in the Sirolo Castle, donated the church on the mountain to Abbot Guizemone for his monastry. From this we can deduce that even though there is no document stating that the Church of St. Pietro existed before 1037 ,we can be almost certain that it was built at the beginning of the year 1000. The church was built with stones taken from the mountain. This is why it is so white because the stone from Mount Conero is vey similair to the famous stone of Istria. It is divided into three naves with an apse and a central nave. There are no decorations inside or ouside making the whole building unique in its pure whiteness and suggestive surroundings. The Benedictine brothers lived near to the church in modest cells. Their life was based on prayer and agricultural work. They lived off offerings in harmony with all.
The retreat was extended in 1203 and restoration and decorative works were carried out. Cloisters were built. In 1223 further works were carried out and six pillars and eight columns were re-erected in the crypt, probably originally part of some open gallery or garden portico. The Crypt capitals are covered in bas-reliefs depicting images from the animal and plant world that were probably inspired by what the unknown artist saw around him. The decorated columns are the most characteristic feature of the church and are all different for one another. Three of the four columns depict plantlife whilst the fourth is covered with frightening monsters with snake like bodies long snouts, staring eyes,enormous mouths, bat like wings and twisted bodies, all imagery typical of the middle ages.
The Benedictines lived on the Conero in prayer and in harmony with the surrounding environment for a further 300 years. But their numbers declined steadily and slowly the compelx itself started to fall into neglect. The end finally came in 1514. In 1518 the Benedictines were replaced by the Gonzaghians who took over the Church of St Pietro and the retreat.The San Benedetto caves, and in 1521 the church of the same name, were occupied by the Camaldolese. It was at this point that disagreements began between the two religious groups. The Gonzaghians did not approve of the new religious order and so they took advantage of their strategic position to carry out attacks on the cloister by rolling large masses down the mountain towards the cloister onto the cells of the poor Camaldolese, who, obviously frightened, were forced to flee into the woods.
The conflict between the two religious families ended in 1558 when a fire burnt all the roofs of the church of Saint Peter and the surrounding buildings, even some of the walls fell down because of the intense heat. The Gonzaghians were forced to leave St Pietro and so it was handed over to the Camaldolese who then started the works to restore it to its original state after the fire. The Camaldolese remained on the Conero until the age of the dissolution of the religious orders. They abandoned the area in 1860. The ancient benedictine monastry has since been transformed in to an elegant and comfortable hotel.